2000s >> 2003 >> no-1191-november-2003

Don’t try to reform capitalism – work for socialism

Here we aim to bring together the various elements in the case for reformism (implying rejection of revolution) and in the case for revolution (implying rejection of reformism). The taking of a revolutionary position does not necessarily mean opposing all proposed and actual reforms of capitalism, but it does mean not advocating them and opposing reformism as a policy alternative to revolution.

On the left-hand side the case for reformism is presented critically, expressed as a number of more or less related points. In the right-hand column the case for revolution is spelled out.


Reforms of the present system have the seeming advantage of being based firmly in the realm of the possible, capable of being achieved quicker and easier than the bigger and more fundamental set of changes that will constitute the socialist revolution. The socialist revolution requires a majority of people to understand and want socialism. While the material conditions are ripe for production for use (not profit), common ownership and free access, the dominant ideas are those of capitalism.
Most reforms are single-issue proposals specific to a particular area of society. Large-scale change is not necessarily opposed, lip service may even be paid to it, but it is to be achieved, Fabian-fashion, bit by bit. Revolutionaries object to reformist attempts to tame capitalism because it is like attacking a tiger one claw at a time. Capitalism is a coherent and, with all its faults, a well-integrated system. It will yield only to a campaign of fundamental and comprehensive change.
Reformism, being pragmatic, faces a problem or a situation ready to accept less, often far less, than is really needed to deal with the situation or solve the problem. The medical term for reforms is band-aids; in terms of bread it is crumbs or at best half a loaf. Revolutionaries point out how little of value is achieved by piecemeal reformist efforts. The time and energy spent on collecting crumbs from the capitalists’ table would be better directed to organising capture of the bakery.
Reformers implicitly or explicitly deride revolutionaries for wanting the impossible, for ‘not living in the real world’. They believe that capitalism can be made to operate in the interest of workers. Revolutionaries say that while some reforms can be achieved under capitalism, the capitalist system operates, and can only operate, in the interests of capital. In trying to make the capitalist leopard change its spots reformers are the real ‘impossibilists’.
Reformers present their proposed changes as ‘Yes, it’s not perfect, but it’s better than what we’ve got.’ This philosophy is often expressed by the injunction to ‘choose the lesser of two evils’. Revolutionaries don’t accept that there is no alternative to capitalism or that it is ‘the only game in town’. When non-socialists face them with the choice between two evils they choose neither.
Reformers want to use the electoral process as a means of gathering as many votes as possible. Reform manifestos display the small changes advocated as attractively as possible, with little concern for educating the voters. Priority is given to winning elections and electing leaders. Revolutionaries, too, are prepared to use the electoral process, but with a view to challenging capitalist control of political power. The first task is to educate people and make socialists. The success of socialist candidates will measure the extent to which this activity achieves its aim.
The extremes of wealth and poverty in the world today, and their dire consequences such as starvation and preventable disease, are recognised by reformers, who respond by advocating various measures (usually unsuccessful or only partly successful) to redistribute wealth and reduce poverty. For revolutionaries wealth is not to be redistributed but held in common. Poverty, starvation and suchlike are not to be minimised, they are to be abolished.
The success of the appeal to reform capitalism depends to a great extent on dissuading people from the alternative of abolishing it. So socialism is wrongly described as nationalisation or the wages system under state management. Revolutionaries describe socialism as a world society of common ownership, democratic control, production for use, and free access on the basis of self-determined need – no nation states, no classes, no money.
Reformers who have some sympathy with the idea of socialism commonly seek to do a deal with revolutionaries: ‘It is important to get unity of the left. Join us today to achieve – (particular reform) and tomorrow we’ll join the revolution’. For revolutionaries the deal offered by some reformers to get unity of the left is always a poisoned chalice. Reforms are to be pursued today, tomorrow the revolution – and tomorrow never comes.
Reformers believe that leaders are necessary to inspire and organise followers to work for the particular change(s) advocated. Active support for leaders in the form of volunteering is usually welcome, but minimal support at the ballot box is acceptable. Socialism requires that there be neither leaders nor followers. It does, however, require organisation and sometimes people will be elected or appointed as delegates or representatives of others in the process of making decisions at various levels of responsibility.
Some reformers believe that free market capitalism is better than state capitalism. Assuming (wrongly) that the only choice is between two forms of the profit system, then there is something to be said for the ‘free’ market, which is never completely free but always subject to some control to protect the system. Revolutionaries do not enter into the debate about whether free market capitalism is better or worse than state capitalism. They oppose the profit system in all its forms and work only for its replacement by socialism.
Other reformers believe that state capitalism, which they may call socialism or communism, is better than free market capitalism. This view suffered a severe setback with the collapse of the Soviet and allied regimes in the late 1980s, but there is still some support around the world for more state control of markets. As just said, revolutionaries have no stake in how capitalism is run. Socialists are opposed to capitalism however it is organised. The alternative is not ‘free market’ capitalism or state capitalism, but capitalism or socialism.
Time and energy spent on reforms is said by some reformers to be a necessary part of the class struggle. It is claimed that this is all we can do: fight for the best deal we can get from capitalism. Class struggle is an inherent and inevitable feature of capitalism. The historical task of workers is not to accept their subordinate class position – it is to replace class society with classless society.

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